Engaging Art Prize: A Storied Theology of the Arts [Part Two]

Editor’s Note: Transpositions is currently featuring a 3-part series on Art Prize by guest contributor, Chris Brewer. Brewer started with an introduction to the competition (published 11 April), and continues by suggesting a storied theology of the arts as a way by which to engage Art Prize (published 18 April). The series concludes with two vignettes from Art Prize 2011 (published 25 April).

As creatures created in the image of a creative Creator God, we both receive and exhibit creativity. When we do so, we simultaneously give glory to God and offer it as gift to our fellow human beings who then respond (i.e., to God’s creation and our own) in like fashion ad infinitum.[1] As part of God’s very good creation, these initial and responsive creations need no external justification, no particular use. They are free to be useless.

In his Foreword to Art that Tells the Story, Makoto Fujimura states:

Art and poetry provide a true paradox in consideration of their validity for existence. We cannot use the arts anymore than we can use a human being. Art can be, and often is, utterly useless. It can be ephemeral, confounding, non-linear. But precisely because they are useless and ephemeral, the arts fundamentally define our humanity. The arts, in other words, are essential, and useful, because they are useless.[2]

In addition to recognizing art as created good (i.e., useless), then, we recognize it’s usefulness, and what’s more, a particular use: art’s potential to be a redemptive word. Some may object that this sort of use is a sort of propagandizing, but it need not be propaganda so long as it maintains its mooring (i.e., as created good). In this sense, art can function as a sort of wisdom tradition – a commonly observable, shared experience – where oil and canvas or some other medium stand in for the sun, wind, water and time (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11).[3]  Especially interesting along these lines with regard to Art Prize is the 2011 poster where conversation bubbles form Alexander Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse,” a 42-ton sculpture and symbol of the city, on end (see above).

And so it’s not either-or but both-and.  Because we live in a fallen world, created good apart from redemptive word quickly devolves into hedonism; redemptive word apart from created good is nothing more than propaganda. Taken together, however, they provide a rightly Storied theology of the arts and a proper framework from which we might engage Art Prize (and the questions raised in Part One).

In what sense, then, does Art Prize evince art as created good?  Or more specifically, in what sense does Art Prize, as event, reflect the created goodness of art, and, on the other hand, in what sense do the various artworks, individually and collectively, do so?  Does the event invite the participant into the uselessness of art?  And what of art as redemptive word?  Does Art Prize go beyond conversation as icon (i.e., conversation bubbles as a sort of mosaic on a poster) to some actual use, and if so, in what sense?  In what sense, if any, does Art Prize (i.e., as event or artworks, whether individual or collective) possess redemptive qualities?  To what extent and in which sphere(s)?

What is Art Prize all about?  According to Rick DeVos, it’s about “building a creative culture in West Michigan,”[4] a culture of conversation, if the poster is any indication.  And how might we participate?  Well, for starters, we should recognize the DeVos’ efforts for what they are and create instead of critique, and this in an effort to cultivate their creation (i.e., Art Prize as event) in a collective effort to embrace art as created good and redemptive word.  And how should we do that?  That’s a good question; one that should lead to an interesting conversation.

In part three I’ll be sharing two vignettes, my own efforts, from Art Prize 2011: Alfonse Borysewicz at the Basilica of St Adalbert and Art that Tells the Story at Art Prize.


[1] On receiving, see C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1961), 19, 88.  The response that I describe is, of course, before the Fall.  For a fallen response, see Romans 1:18-32.

[2] Makoto Fujimura, “Foreword,” in Christopher R. Brewer, ed., Art that Tells the Story (Grand Rapids: Gospel through Shared Experience, 2011), 12.


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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  1. says: Jim Watkins

    Chris, thanks for these reflections on Art Prize. In this post, particularly, I appreciate the way you articulate the relation between created good and redemptive word. Your creative use of these terms not only shows how valuable theological reflection can be for the arts, but also the significance of careful theological exposition. Looking forward to part 3!

  2. says: richard kooyman

    I would add to Makoto Fujimura’s insightful quote to say that art’s function or usefulness, ever since Modernism, is the fact that it does not serve anyone or anything. There are two inherent problems with ArtPrize that attempt to make art serve a cause.

    The first is that it exists as an economic development tool for the city of Grand Rapids. ArtPrize’s own economic study showed that 17 million dollars was generated off the backs of the artists participating in the competition. None of the artists are paid to exhibit and all have to pay their own expense in the run to catch the big carrot of a grand prize. It’s a lure, a ploy, a game whose purpose is to create income and business for Grand Rapids business. Some can argue that artists exhibit under their own free will but the model is unsustainable. We can already see a pattern to the award winners decide by popular vote in that to win in this conservative and religious community of SW Mihcigan the art needs to be big, conservative, realistic, religious.
    The second problem with ArtPrize is that it is funded and founded by a conservative, politically active, religious foundation, the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation. Art has been a battle ground for the religious right ever since the cultural wars were begun over control of the National Endowment for the Arts in the mid 1980’s. The cultural war continues today with people The Koch Brothers on the east coast and The Devos Family in the midwest. Who ever sits on the boards of our cultural institutions has the ability to control them. Dick and Betsy Devos are leaders in the religious school voucher initiatives across the country and recently entered the arts management arena by donating 22 million dollars to create the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The Devos’s idea of art is that art is good if it creates new business and new business models. Art in this sense serves something-capitalism. It’s a dangerous model that is opposite of what Makoto Fujimura suggests.

    1. says: Chris Brewer

      Richard, thanks for joining the conversation. We may be coming from different perspectives on this, but the general idea in this post was to provide a framework from which we might engage the complexities of Art Prize. I’ve suggested that Christians might understand and engage the event from a Storied theology of the arts that acknowledges art’s uselessness as created good as well as it’s usefulness as redemptive word. Understood in this twin sense, art anticipates and is a foretaste of the world to come.

      For my part, I have no objection to Art Prize, whether the event or its constituent parts, contributing to the economic or moral well being of an individual or the community so long as these uses are held in tension with art as gift (i.e., uselessness). Whether Art Prize “exists as a development tool” is debatable. I would argue that Rick’s intent was broader and more generative. What’s more, Art Prize has an open-source quality that invites varied models of engagement (e.g., competing for the prize, engaging the conversation without concern for the prize, etc.), and these varied models, as well as the more general distinction between the whole and its parts, resist totalizing critiques and demand a more careful and thorough reading. Frankly, I’m less interested in artists looking to win big bucks, and more interested in the conversation made possible by their participation. The costs are clearly prohibitive, but they are voluntary, and encourage creative resourcing, yet another generative aspect of the competition with potential for relationship building and conversation.

      Your second objection seems to be made up of several related assumptions/objections; namely, that the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation is a “religious foundation,” that their motive is one of control, that their primary and sole intention has to do with business development informed by the worst of capitalism, and that all of the above make them, and Art Prize, highly suspect.

      With regard to the first sub-objection, While the DeVos’ self-identify as Christians and I’m sure that their religious commitments inform their giving, the foundation supports a wide variety of initiatives for the common good (http://www.dbdvfoundation.org/). With regard to the second, an open competition where the results are decided by public vote seems just the opposite of control. With regard to the third, their initiatives clearly have an economic component, but their strategies and desired outcomes go beyond these economic concerns. And with regard to capitalism you might check out John Schneider’s The Good of Affluence (Eerdmans), a book that sheds light on capitalism’s potential for good, something the Devos family epitomizes.

      1. says: richard kooyman

        Thanks for you thoughtful reply. I’d like to make a couple of assertions and corrections to your comments if I may.
        Art involves taste but isn’t about taste so it doesn’t “anticipate a foretaste” as much as it leads society with aesthetic ideas. This is what Art has been doing ever since Modernism began. I’m confused as to what you suggest Christians think about art but I would offer that Art has to be thought of within it’s own logic unless you want to start rewriting history.

        You may have no objections to ArtPrize but let me assure you that may artists like myself do. We aren’t sure as to what Rick Devos’s intentions are because they certainly have change. First it was to be a “radical” social experiment that was to bring “democracy” back to the art via an American Idol voting system. Then last year a huge piece of kitsch, a 13ft mosaic of Jesus on the Cross won the grand prize and the art world laughed so this year Devos added jurors and jury prize attempting to redeem ArtPrize.

        You and I can certainly disagree about ideas but we can’t disagree with the facts. Make no mistake the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation is a evangelical religious foundation as describe in their own mission statement. Their idea of art is that of art as innovation and business. Both Rick Devos and his parents talk of artists as “entrepreneurs” and ArtPrize itself commission the economic study that was used to show that ArtPrize wasn’t just about art but about good business for the community.

        1. says: Chris Brewer

          Richard, thanks again for the conversation. With regard to my use of the word “foretaste,” I’m operating within this Storied theology of the arts informed by the Biblical Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. With that in mind, we find ourselves between the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross and the ultimate realization of those effects in the consummation (Revelation 21-22). Theologians refer to this as the already, not yet tension of redemption. Applied to art (i.e., artists who are Christian seeking to bring redemption to bear on their small corner of reality), this means something like creating the world as it ought to be, anticipating the not yet of redemption. All of this is wrapped up in that word “foretaste.” Fujimura is helpful here. He notes: “I see abstraction as a potential language to speak to today’s world about the hope of things to come.” (Makoto Fujimura, “Abstraction and the Christian Faith,” Online: http://www.leaderu.com/humanities/fujimura-CIVAessay.html) While he is speaking about abstraction in particular, this sort of thinking could be applied to the art of artists who are Christian more generally. And so again, my use of “foretaste” has more to do with chronology than “taste.”

          I think we’re on the same page with regard to Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion,” the Art Prize 2011 1st place winner. Her work, and this piece in particular, remind me a bit of the work of Thomas Kinkade, work that Greg Wolfe recently called “a form of denial” in the Wall Street Journal (Gregory Wolfe, “Art in a Fallen World,” Online: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303425504577353743803849150.html).

          With regard to the juried grand prize and accompanying juried awards, I applaud the effort to balance the conversation, something that I alluded to in Part One.

          Clearly, we’re coming from different perspectives on the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, and this series isn’t really the place to have a full on conversation, but suffice it to say that I prefer creation to critique (thanks Gabe Lyons), and encourage generative participation and engagement for the common good over commentary from the sidelines. Tomorrow’s post, Engaging Art Prize: Two Vignettes [Part Three], is the story of my efforts along these lines.

  3. says: richard kooyman

    To read more about ARtPrize and the people behind it please read https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=407928732254

    1. says: Chris Brewer

      I’ll limit my response here as I’d prefer that the comments pertain to and reference the discusion above more directly (i.e., without depending on external links). That being said, I’d encourage a re-reading of Nathan Jabobs’ exchange with Calvin Seerveld. Nathan is an acquaintance and we’ve exchanged several emails about the article since its publication. I’ve also exchanged emails with Seerveld since that time. All that to say, Nathan is arguing for something very different and more along the lines of traditional iconography with a commitment to objective beauty. As such, his argument has no direct bearing upon Art Prize’s supposed intention to reboot art. Both men question whether or not an Art Prize is the best use (i.e., stewardship) of those funds, but neither, to my knowledge, link the giving of those funds to the sorts of things you’re alleging (i.e., Art Prize as a nefarious, conservative, capitalist plot). If I’m misreading your conclusions, forgive and feel free to correct me, but I suspect we simply disagree.

      1. says: richard kooyman

        I would not use your words “Art Prize as a nefarious, conservative, capitalist plot” but I think the facts show that ArtPrize along with the Devos Institute of Arts Management, along with Betsy Devos’s campaign for religious school vouchers, along with the family continuing anti-gay rights activism shows a family interested in using their power to change culture toward a more conservative, religious agenda.

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